GreenThink Blog

GreenThink Blog

Our GreenThink blog shares design and building techniques, trends and innovations that maximize energy efficiency, save money, create homes that are more durable and have better air quality, and protect the environment.

A fresh look at heating and cooling the home

Nothing gobbles up energy—and eats away at a homeowner’s budget—like heating and cooling the home’s interior. Considering the number of points in a traditionally-built home where air—along with the money you’ve spent to warm it up—leaks in and out, dad’s classic question of, “Are you trying to heat the outdoors?” comes to mind.

We’ll go into more detail about air sealing in another blog, but suffice it to say that this strategy has led to the need for innovative mechanical ventilation systems. In the past, mechanical ventilation wasn’t needed because homes were so leaky, but now that we’re building tighter structures, the building code requires it. In the last few homes we’ve built, we’ve chosen a heat recovery ventilation system (HRV). A HRV not only saves energy by reducing the amount of treated air that is wasted, it also improves indoor air quality.

The most important thing to understand about a heat recovery ventilation system is that it brings in fresh air and exhausts stale air, but it doesn’t let all of the heat in the outgoing air escape while it’s at it. A HRV, like the Zehnder Comfosystems unit that we’ve used in a number of homes, works like a radiator to pass most of the heat in the outgoing air to the incoming air rather than wasting the energy you’ve already used in heating it. This particular HRV unit is about 85 percent efficient. Simply put, that means that if the air going out of the house is 70 degrees and the air outside that’s coming in is 40 degrees, the HRV warms the air to about 65 degrees before it lets it into the house.

The incoming air passes through the HRV and goes on to a manifold. At the manifold, the air goes from a single big pipe to many smaller pipes, which in turn service all of the rooms that receive ventilated air. Usually this includes the main rooms like the living areas and bedrooms. Some rooms have return air vents. These are typically “wet” rooms like the bathrooms, laundry and kitchen from which stale, wet air is collected to be routed out of the house. The system also collects and exhausts excess moisture that might otherwise lead to mold and mildew.

This leads me to another benefit of a HRV—improved indoor air quality. By eliminating air leaks in the home and getting your fresh air from the ventilation system, you are ensuring that the indoor air you breathe is clean and healthy. As I said before, in an older house air is leaking in wherever it can find a way. A common scenario is that warm air, because it rises, will find a way to leak out up high, often through cracks between the wall and roof framing or through the cans around recessed lighting. The replacement air comes in from down low through leaks in the floor or bottom of the walls. This means that often the air you are breathing is coming from your crawlspace, most likely tainted with dust, mold spores, even the residue of pest sprays. By contrast, when you have a tightly sealed house and a HRV, the air you are breathing is coming from a known source and through a fine filter. You can choose filters based on your specific health needs and preferences.

A HRV ensures energy efficiency and a comfortable, healthy indoor environment in an air tight home.

Check out the accompanying video on heating and cooling.

A green way to insulate for extreme energy efficiency

Back in the ‘70s, California’s Title 24 revised the state’s building code to include limits for energy usage in built environments. The go-to solution for stemming the amount of energy required for heating and cooling quickly became insulation. For decades, the most frequently used type of insulation was fiberglass batt, laid between framing in walls and ceilings. To work effectively, insulation has to completely stop the movement of air. The fiberglass itself is not the insulation—it’s the material’s ability to trap air—known in the trades as the “dead air space strategy.” The primary challenges have been installing it in a way that completely fills all the cavities, and protecting the installers from skin rashes and breathing the harmful particles that escape during the process.

As an alternative, many of us turned to blown-in foam as insulation because it’s much better at perfectly filling the cavity. While foam does an incredible job of insulating and creating a thermal boundary, it also comes with drawbacks. The accelerant can be harmful to installers and special protective gear is required. It also produces greenhouse gasses that lead to depletion of the ozone layer.

Today, insulating is a “no brainer” in the building process. And we’re diverting that extra brain power into developing materials and strategies that are safer for people and the environment, yet significantly more effective. For insulation in our Carmel Point project, following protocols of the Living Building Challenge, we’re using two innovative products—blown-in cellulose and rock wool. Cellulose, made of at least 80% post-consumer paper waste, is blown into all the spaces between framing on interior walls and ceilings. It doesn’t require the harmful accelerants of blown-in foam. Rock wool, a by-product of steel smelting, is formed into rigid boards for insulation over exterior framing. On top of being a super-insulator, rock wool also repels water that can cause damage to the structure and negatively impact interior air quality, over time.

Products like these, and those to come in the future, turn waste into viable materials that keep us on the path of responsible, sustainable building.

Check out the accompanying video on insulation.

Along with this blog, we’ve posted a video

Hot water at any faucet in 3 to 5 seconds with as little as 1 cup wasted. Now that’s a HUGE improvement.

Studies show that the average home wastes more than 3,650 gallons a year waiting for the hot water to make it to the faucet. And about 15% of the energy used in conventional hot water delivery systems is wasted.1 That’s an unnecessary burden on your energy budget as well as on our area’s limited water supply and other natural resources.

In the Carmel Point home we’re building, following the Living Building Challenge, one of the solutions we’re using is a demand-controlled circulation system with what the industry calls “structured plumbing.” We like to call it “strategic plumbing.” Here are a few details of our strategic plumbing system:

  • One main ¾-inch PEX recirculation loop with short “twigs” rather than “branches” to each faucet
  • To maximize flow and minimize mixing of hot and cold water, this line is all sweeps and the only fittings are ¾ x ½-inch tees
  • Each tee supplies a fixture with hot water and each fixture has its own ½-inch supply line. The bathtub and clothes washer share a ½-inch line
  • All but one of the supply lines are less than 8-feet long containing about 1 cup of water
  • When a demand button is pushed or a motion sensor is triggered, the pump sends hot water through the recirculation loop at 4 to 6 GPM and shuts off when the hot water arrives at the last fixture in the loop, taking less than 2 minutes
  • Because of well-insulated pipes, the water in the loop remains above 105° for 30 to 40 minutes
  • A signal from another demand button or sensor will not trigger the pump until the water temperature falls below 105°
  • Wired demand buttons can be located at the entrance to the house, bedroom night stands and the kitchen; motion sensors may work best in the bathrooms, laundry and other locations to suit the owners’ patterns of use
  • There is nothing in this system that is outside the existing plumbing code

In every house we build, we look for ways to increase energy efficiency and reduce related waste and costs. Along with the Nexus system, this advanced hot water delivery system dramatically reduces both the energy used to heat the water and the amount of water wasted.
Want to know more? Send me an email at And stay tuned. —Rob Nicely


Along with this blog, we’re introducing the first in a series of videos that showcase aspects of what we’re doing in this Carmel Point home.

Unlocking the power of grey water

In every house we build, we look for ways to increase energy efficiency and reduce related waste and costs. In the Carmel Point home we’re building, following the Living Building Challenge, some solutions we’re using include an awesome water-to-water heat pump, demand-controlled circulation system and what the industry calls “structured plumbing.” Together, these systems dramatically reduce both the energy used to heat the water and the amount of water wasted.

Let’s talk first about the water heating system that’s a lot more than a heat pump. It’s called the Nexus Heat Recovery System. Used in Australia, Nexus was introduced in the U.S. a couple years back. It’s in a model home near Sacramento, but this is the first complete system installed in a residence in the U.S. We are excited about proving that such a “totally cool” system can work. Here are the highlights of this extraordinary and revolutionary system:

  • The system includes the NEXheater energy recycling water-to-water heat pump, the eWater Collector to collect grey water, NEXtreater grey water treatment system and the NEXservoir treated water storage tank. The grey water treatment system is expected to complete the testing process in December and be certified as a NSF 350 “onsite treatment system for non-potable grey water.” This certification is recognized by the County of Monterey Environmental Health Department.
  • The house was plumbed for separate grey water and black water drain systems, both terminating in the mechanical room. Grey water from the laundry, bathtub, showers and bathroom sinks will drain into the collection tank. The water heater will remove the heat from the grey water, then send the grey water to the treatment system. The treated water will be stored in a tank for exterior landscaping or non-potable use in toilets.

o When you take a shower or wash clothes the warm water goes down the drain

o The warm water is collected in the 75-gallon capacity grey water collector

o Because hot water from the water heater tank was used, it starts the heat pump process between the collector and the heater, pulling the heat back out of the warm grey water

o When that “batch” of warm grey water has brought the water heater temperature back up to 120° the grey water is sent to the treatment unit

o That batch of grey water is treated and sent to the treated water reservoir

o The treated water may be used to flush toilets or irrigate landscaping

o The system has the capacity to treat 200 gallons of grey water per day

o When you stop using the system at night, the cycle is completed leaving the water heater hot, the collector empty and the treated water waiting in the tank

o The cycle starts all over again the next time you use hot water

Want to know more? Send me an email at And stay tuned. —Rob Nicely

Next up: Structured Plumbing – Hot water at any faucet in 3 to 5 seconds with as little as 1 cup wasted.

Taking on the Living Building Challenge

We have to be the luckiest design/build firm ever. We have clients who not only want to incorporate sustainable building practices into their home, but they fully embrace the latest and highest standards. We’re currently working with a couple on a complete remodel of their Carmel Point home, applying the principles of Living Building Challenge (LBC) and aiming for LBC net zero energy certification.

LBC is not just a new way of building. It’s a new way of thinking and living that carefully considers and respects our finite natural resources and precious environment. It takes Passive House, LEED, Net Zero Energy and all other sustainable and green design and building practices into a completely different dimension. It’s an ideal, yet it has practical applications that we’re employing today. To say that we are learning a lot and excited about the opportunity to test new technologies, products and approaches would be an understatement.

On top of significantly reducing energy consumption and producing the remaining energy needed to run the house onsite, meeting the LBC challenge includes avoiding use of toxic materials included on their “Red List.” For things that we routinely use in construction—PVC, certain insulation materials, paints and finishes—we got creative and found viable alternatives.

This 2,000-square-foot ocean-side home will feature innovations like interior blown-in cellulose and exterior Rock Wool insulation—made from post-consumer newspapers and a by-product of steel smelting, respectively; finishes and fixtures from Green Goods—a company specializing in environmentally sound, non-toxic paints, cabinets, tiles and more. We’re also installing a breakthrough water heating system—the Nexus eWater system. It’s an energy recycling water heater that uses waste heat in the drain water from showers and laundry to heat water. After the system extracts the heat from grey water, it treats and stores water for use in the garden as well as interior non-potable functions like flushing toilets. An approach called “structured plumbing” will enable us to deliver hot water to any faucet in 3 to 5 seconds, wasting only about 1 cup of water.

We are well into this project and thought you’d enjoy following along. We’re also doing a series of short videos that we’ll be posting on You Tube that showcase different, unique processes and technologies we’re using for this home. We’ll post a link on our site and Facebook as soon as each one is ready for prime time.  If you have questions, send an email to — Rob Nicely

What “green” really means

A couple quotes come to mind when I think about green building:

“Sustainable development involves meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Earth Summit, Rio De Janeiro, 1992)

“By making smarter choices about how you build and the products you use, you can significantly contribute to the health, wealth and well-being of yourself, your family, your community, and the world.”

As green building continues to become more mainstream, we are deluged with definitions of “green.” Be it through the media, trade publications or discussions with friends, it’s likely that the info is confusing or contradictory.

With this in mind, let’s review the basic terms. The notion of green building (or the green economy, or the green anything) is based on the concept of sustainability. A sustainable system is one that can go on forever, where the inputs are renewable and their acquisition doesn’t degrade the related environment.

The movement toward green products and methods reflects a widespread recognition that we can’t go on doing things the way we—as a society—have done in the past. With more than seven billion people on Earth, and our radically increased ability to process and consume resources, it’s due time that we rethink and retool.

Green building is our industry’s response to finding ourselves at this peculiar point in human history. To help you sort out whether a proposed practice or product is legitimate vs. “green washing,” here is a short list of things to consider when pondering “green-ness”:

  • Energy and Atmosphere—How much energy went into the production and shipping of the product? Did the manufacturer use renewable energy sources and work diligently to reduce energy usage? Was the product shipped from far away (using more energy) or was it made close to where you’ll use it? If it is an electronic or other energy-dependent device, how much will it use during its lifetime? Is it efficient relative to alternatives? These questions impact the “carbon footprint” of that item and, hopefully, your decision to purchase it. The over-arching idea is to choose ways of fulfilling your needs that use as little fossil fuel and other non-renewable resources as possible.
  • Materials and Resources—When it comes to materials and resources, the idea is to limit the use of non-renewable materials, those with a large carbon footprint and anything that’s extracted in a way that does damage to natural systems. As an example from our industry, we try to incorporate as much engineered lumber as possible. This lumber can be made with smaller, less mature trees that are more abundant and easier to replace than mature trees. Products that incorporate recycled content do less damage to the environment. Another important consideration is product disposal. Can it be recycled or easily re-enter the system after its use? Or, does it contain toxins that make it difficult or impossible to re-introduce into the eco-system? An example from the past that we continue to deal with today (and will forever) are materials that contain asbestos and lead. When these materials were first introduced, we didn’t know (or maybe care) about the harm they would cause. Today, disposing of these materials is incredibly complicated. We have to hire someone to assess the level of hazard, then another person who is certified to take and dispose of it as safely as possible. Carpet is a more contemporary example. Elements of carpeting, like the glue, are toxic and some materials don’t break down. Typically, the entire carpet is thrown out. Because nylon doesn’t degrade and other components are toxic, it can’t be reused as a consumer product and doesn’t easily re-enter the eco-system. And this leads to my next point…
  • Toxins and Indoor Air Quality—In construction, it has been common practice to use products containing toxins that “off-gas” into your home, potentially affecting your health. And after the useful life of the product, that toxicity will have to be dealt with as it returns to some other part of the environment.
  • Water Conservation—I add this because, a) water is so precious in our region and its availability increasingly impacts our lives in many ways, and b) there is an important link between water conservation and energy conservation. It takes a lot of energy just to get the water to your home. And once it’s there, it takes even more to heat it and pump it to faucets. On top of using less water, it helps to properly insulate pipes and not to waste water that’s already been heated.

This is a lot to consider, but I hope it helps you sort out what “green” really means. And, as ever, if you have any questions or want to discuss this, send me at —Rob Nicely

Growing for the future—the sustainably managed forest

It wasn’t until I visited the 94,000-acre Collins Almanor Forest near California’s Mount Lassen a few years back that I understood what “sustainably managed” means. For the Collins Pine company, it has been a way of doing business since they started timber operations in 1941 on land they began acquiring as far back as 1902.

From the get-go, they used a “sustained yield” management strategy, essentially meaning that harvesting is done in a way that doesn’t hamper the forest’s continued growth. To do this, they estimated how much timber was there when they started. Then they implemented a cutting strategy that allowed them to harvest trees without damaging the ecology of the area or diminishing the future potential yield of the forest. By 2009, after they had harvested about 1.5 billion board feet of lumber, they still had resources left to harvest for another 70 to 80 years. The company’s sustainable use of the land has earned it status as one of the premier Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) operations in the U.S.

FSC has risen from the alphabet soup of certifying bodies as the only one that represents real accountability in forestry practices—it tracks and certifies the product from the time it was a tree until it reaches the construction site, paper mill or other production site. All three Collins forests—Almanor, Pennsylvania and Lakeview, that together span 314,000 acres—have been independently certified by SCS global Services in accordance with FSC standards and policies.

Until I visited this forest, FSC was one of the abstract concepts that buzzed around in my head when thinking about “green building.” Jay Francis, forest manager for Collins Pine Company, took us to a sustainably harvested forest as well as one that was clear-cut (a common practice in conventional timber operations). We also visited a forest that was unmanaged or “wild.” Trust me, the unmanaged forest was nothing like those described by early settlers—open and park-like, with plenty of light filtering in and space to accommodate their wagons. Today, unmanaged forests are characterized by a buildup of dead limbs and leaves—increasing the danger of catastrophic fire—and a glut of undergrowth that chokes out sunlight and keeps grasses and other plants from thriving. Not to mention that this diminishes available food for herbivores who call the forest home.

One reason “unmanaged” doesn’t equal “natural” is that we’ve changed the relationship between the forest and fire. Before the West was populated, the forest would burn periodically due to spontaneous fires sparked by lightning or to Native Americans starting fires to maintain the health of the habitat. It’s also important to note that when fires burn periodically (every 15 years or so), the fuel load is controlled and fire doesn’t become the traumatic event that it is today.

This experience really opened my eyes. I never imagined the depth of knowledge and level of engagement with the forest required to produce the materials we need, while nurturing the health of the resource. Now, it seems like a no-brainer to choose FSC whenever possible for lumber, paper and other wood products, especially when much of it can be had at the same or close to the same price. For more info, check out or send me (Rob Nicely) an email to

Every day should be Earth Day

Here are ten things we can all do to celebrate Earth Day, starting now and all year long.

1. Buy local—whenever possible, opt for items that are produced or grown near you. They require less transportation and the related impacts on the environment.

2. Lose the leaks—check ductwork, windows, doors and indoor/outdoor plumbing for leaks. Small fixes can mean big savings in water and heating/cooling costs as well as make for a more comfortable and healthier indoor environment.

3. Think twice before you toss—ask yourself…Can I find a new use for it? Can I recycle it? Can I donate it? Can I compost it? When you answer “yes” and take action, you help reduce the vast amounts that go into landfills.

4. Get growing—whether in pots on a patio, balcony or porch or in a patch of land, use whatever space you have to grow your favorite herbs and veggies.

5. Make the switch—keep a supply of reusable bags handy for shopping. And don’t forget to take them into the store.

6. Take steps—benefit your health as well as the planet by walking or biking instead of driving when you can.

7. Ditch the disposables—Treat yourself to reusable mugs, glasses, water bottles and other containers to cut down on the amount of trash from single use items.

8. Green up—take a little time out of your busy schedule to explore websites (including ours) for ideas on greener living, and re-greening your home.

9. Get involved—volunteer for a cleanup day. Pick up and dispose of trash when you see it rather than walking on by.

10. Save your energy—sign up for a home energy audit. You might be surprised at the money, and natural resources, you can save. You’ll get a list of strategies to choose from as your time and budget allow.

Indoor air quality

Long after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, there are still many lessons to be learned. More than 143,000 families were moved into trailers provided by FEMA, and many of them immediately fell ill. Investigators found that particleboard used in the cabinets and other interior finishes was off gassing so much formaldehyde that the interior air was toxic. Besides causing acute symptoms such as burning eyes, coughing, sore throat, and bloody noses, breathing formaldehyde raises the risk of cancer and chronic respiratory disease.

This is an extreme example of a phenomenon we must be concerned with any time we create interior living spaces. Many of the products manufactured for building applications contain formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that off-gas into the air. Along with mold—caused largely by use of poor construction methods—these chemicals contribute to unhealthy indoor living conditions and even result in acute or chronic health problems, especially for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

Luckily, there are many products and methods available for creating healthier homes. An alternative to urea-formaldehyde glue is being used in the manufacture of competitively priced plywood and particleboard. And there are many low- or no-VOC paints and finishes on the market. Formaldehyde-free insulation is also widely available. Construction methods that create a sound, moisture-free building envelope can eliminate most molds.
These examples are some of the reasons we’re so passionate about building in ways that benefit occupants as well as our planet. Our design principles and building practices always incorporate environmentally mindful features that improve indoor air quality, enhance value, reduce energy and maintenance costs and are easy on the planet—regardless of whether or not we’re going for a certification.

If you want more info, feel free to email me at or visit

The evolution of insulation

Back in the ‘70s, California’s Title 24 added the use of energy in built environments to the building code. Insulation was deemed a primary way of reducing the amount of energy used for heating and cooling. While insulating has become a routine part of the building process, we are still working on the most effective and safe materials and installation strategies. Historically, fiberglass batt has been the most frequently used type of insulation, but with several drawbacks—it causes skin rash and itching and it is harmful to breathe the particles that escape during installation. And there is no “perfect” way to install it. To actually do what it’s supposed to do, insulation has to completely stop the movement of air…the fiberglass isn’t the real insulator, it’s the air trapped by it—known in the trades as the “dead air space strategy.”  Today, many of us have turned to blown-in insulation using fiberglass or foam as an alternative strategy. While I’ve used foam over the past few years due to its ability to create a solid thermal boundary, I’ve not given up on finding healthier, even more effective options. There are new things on the market—like cellulose and rock wool. Made of at least 80% post-consumer paper waste, blown-in cellulose creates a good seal. Rock wool, a by-product of steel smelting operations, looks a lot like cellulose. The cool thing about rock wool is that it can also be used as rigid boards on the outside of framing. On top of being a super-insulator, it also repels water. And it’s a planet-friendly alternative to foam insulation. We’re using it on our Carmel Point project that’s aiming for certification by Living Building Challenge. Products like these, and those to come in the future, turn waste into viable materials that keep us on the path of responsible, sustainable building.

Be a part of the solution

When it comes to protecting our natural resources and natural wonders that attract tourists from around the world, pumping up the local economy and coming up with real solutions, people often ask, “How can I get involved?” One powerful way is through the Monterey County Business Council. MCBC is an alliance of businesspeople and professionals who work together on countywide issues involving the environment, economic vitality and quality of life. The work is broken down into “Competitive Clusters” or C2 for short. I’m proud to co-chair the Sustainable Building & Innovation C2 with Dan Fernandez. We meet the third Wednesday of each month at the Monterey College of Law, 3:30 to 5:00 to tackle some of the challenges facing our communities. There are several initiatives underway that address responsible disposal of construction materials, use of grey water, storm water management and more. It’s inspiring to see the growing interest in coming up with workable solutions. They’re out there. We just have to harness them and put them into action. Everyone is welcome to our meetings. It’s a great way to learn about all the exciting things going on behind the scenes in Monterey County, and how you can be part of the solution. For more information, check out and

Some thoughts on “green” certifications

There are many certification programs that recognize environmentally mindful design and building, including Passive House, LEED, Zero Net Energy and Living Building Challenge. Certifications provide a road map to achieving specific goals. But it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Little steps in the “green” direction really do make a difference. The most important thing any of us can do is to start learning more about, and embracing, the many options for “green” design, building and living.

Each home, each project offers different challenges and opportunities that require an innovative approach. Every day, we’re learning new techniques to achieve extreme energy efficiency and create healthier indoor environments. Finding ways to use more materials that are low/no VOC, sustainably grown, recycled, reclaimed and recyclable. And dedicating ourselves to ensuring each client has a home that’s durable, comfortable and functional, and supports their commitment to “green” living.

Whether you’re a homeowner, designer, architect, builder or simply have an interest in our impact on the planet, you can make a difference.

Advanced Framing Techniques save energy, money, and the planet.

Advanced Framing Techniques (aka Optimal Value Engineered Framing) have been around since the late ‘70s, but have been slow to make the mainstream of the building industry. Until now. We’re happy to report that a growing number of builders are embracing these techniques. And for many good reasons.

• Does away with framing materials (about a 20% reduction) that serve no structural purpose, reducing waste and costs.

• For every piece of unneeded lumber, builders pay three times—to purchase, to move around and to recycle or send to the landfill.

• It’s a smarter use of wood, saving trees and forests.

• Many techniques improve air sealing and reduce drywall cracking, saving on labor and repair costs.

• Leaves additional room for insulation and eliminates cold spots, making the house more comfortable and energy efficient. Heat moves through wood four times faster than standard insulation materials, causing thermal bridging.

There’s a lot of interesting and useful info out there. The point is to start the journey to smarter, more environmentally mindful building. Otherwise we’ll never get there.

Sites to check out: and

—Rob Nicely, president, Carmel Building & Design

Posted in Blog, News.